Reclaiming “Auntie”

You must be thinking, my God, two posts on Waxes Poetic in the same month! What a treat! What a Christmas miracle! Or, if you know me really well and/or have followed this blog for a long time, you may more accurately be thinking, two posts in the same month? Neiha must be in the middle of some existential crisis, huh? To which I say, that was really uncalled for; I don’t appreciate having my soul peered into so deeply, and could you back off a little?

Regardless of what you must have been thinking, and my own slightly wounded response notwithstanding, yes, it is true, I am in the middle of a gentle existential crisis. I am two applications away from being done with applying to grad school (maybe). 2018 is nearly ending, and boy howdy am I excited for that, but it’s also making me reflect. “Reflection,” as we know, is a mass ritual all bloggers like to undertake when a Gregorian year comes to an end. And I am no exception. What may set me apart from other bloggers engaging in this “Reflection” (aside from 1. not having a monetized blog; 2. not really having blogged very much at all; and, 3. I don’t think I actually am a blogger, now that I think about it) is that 2018 was a year of culmination for me. I graduated college, and for five years, my whole life was college. When I reflect on 2018, it’s hard for me to stop my reflection at January 1 2018. I find myself going farther and farther back, and while I don’t think I have a concrete start-date, May 2013 seems like a reasonable bookend to pair with December 31 2018.

I don’t want to summarize the past 5 and a half years, by any means. I’m more interested in looking at the ways I’ve grown and how I’ve responded to unfamiliar terrain – and how my responses to unfamiliar terrains have developed. But even that is an intense endeavor, and I don’t want to harp on the same talking points that I have discussed in some way, shape, or form on this very blog. So, instead, I want to measure my response to a terrain that started off being familiar only at a distance but has very much become a part of me.

This is a terrain I have been actively avoiding most of my life. This is a terrain that, when I see other people on it, I speed away from as fast as humanly possible. This is a terrain that I have long considered toxic, detrimental on a structural level, and have been actively attacked by in my own life. This terrain is that of the Auntie.

[a lightning effect flashes across the screen. the camera cuts to a doorway, but all you see are two heavily mehendi’d, ornately chappal’d and anklet’d feet stepping towards you. in the distance, you hear a baby cry. the camera cuts to a number of faces, each more horrified than the last. you see me, inexplicably wearing a maatha-pati, heavy kajal, my grandmother’s sari from the old country, and a full beat – even though I’m actually writing this blog post with wet hair, in ripped jeans, and my most comfortable sweater – almost in tears. for some reason, the editor of this scene decided to engorge the frame and then squish it back down. interesting editorial decision, but okay. then, finally, the camera cuts back to the two feet, slowly panning up, and up, and up, until you finally see the face of the exact person you picture when you think of the word “Auntie”.]

[the camera pans back quickly to me. yeah, I know, you weren’t expecting that, were you? neiha lasharie back in form, in her melodramatic element? yeah, it feels good.]

When I was younger, the word “Auntie” didn’t carry as much power or fear as it does for me now. It used to just mean any older woman – my familiarity with said woman was irrelevant. “Uncle” and “Auntie” used to be apolitical terms. Now that I’m older and wiser, I do have a mental picture of an Uncle, but it seems to be the Auntie who wields actual, chaotic neutral power. The internet has revitalized the Auntie with an additional, memetic urgency; the Auntie is no longer a private entity, but a publicly acknowledged and discussed one. The Auntie has become the subject of numerous articles, satirical or otherwise. She has shed her abstraction in favor of shared meaning. The Auntie is a common experience, within and without diaspora, bridging divides, bridging even cultures – us South Asians have realized that some approximation of the Auntie is ubiquitous across many Global South cultures, down to the term Auntie itself! This demystification of the Auntie is important. Identifying her power, her evils, her hold on our society is the first step towards disempowering her.

But who is the Auntie? For people who might not be familiar with the concept, an Auntie is any woman – blood relation or not – who seems to think your life is her personal soap opera. She is a tea-drinking, biscuit-munching, diet-contemplating, occasionally Star Plus-drama-espousing, real-life drama-stirring, wet-kissing, cheek-pinching, body-shaming, back-stabbing, gossip-mongering, aggressive match-making, maybe even match-fixing entity, with a claim to every grapevine on God’s green earth. Just thinking about and writing down her many self-imposed duties is exhausting, but actually interacting with her is the kind of life-sucking experience I would not wish on anyone. An Auntie could be your mother, your grandmother, your cousin, your younger sister, your actual aunt – it could be you, unmarried as you are. And this isn’t to say all aunties are like that – of course not! There are plenty of wonderful lower-case-A aunties who truly want the best for you. And maybe even a handful of upper-case-A Aunties who truly want the best for you. But what sets Aunties apart from aunties is that Aunties feel they have a personal stake in your life – and only imposing themselves into said life – again, your life – can assure their own happiness.

Here’s where the Neiha part of this comes in: I have met my fair share of Aunties, and I revile them all, but more recently I have been called an Auntie by my peers. That’s right. Your girl, at the ripe old age of 23, seems to be rapidly ascending to Auntie status. I am a tea-drinking, biscuit-munching, wet-kissing, match-making, match-fixing- okay, maybe not match-fixing, but Auntie nonetheless! And here’s the thing: I’m not upset about it!

In my heart of hearts, I have always been maternal. I am really rather traditionally feminine, in addition to being myself an outspoken feminist. This makes me an obvious contender for the title of mom-friend, a title I have proudly held for years, but Auntie was a title I never thought I would grow to inherit. I thought I was too progressive, too careful to ever become an Auntie. But here I am, and I have a bone to pick.

When I was listing off the criteria that qualified me as an Auntie, I conspicuously left off some of the most damning qualities traditionally possessed by an Auntie. You might be thinking, but aren’t those the qualities most often associated with being an Auntie? Wouldn’t the absence of those qualities disqualify you from Auntiedom?

No. And here’s my radical thesis: we need to reclaim and liberate the Auntie.

Hear me out.

I am tired of hating on Aunties. More broadly speaking, I am tired of pinning the blame for the worst parts of a culture onto women, who already have an extremely difficult time of it in our culture. A culture that, it needs to be mentioned, is the result of deeply-rooted patriarchal practices complicated by – and in many cases, reinforced by – colonization. In the same way that saying all teenage girls are catty and mean is sexist, isn’t the very idea of an Auntie also kind of terrible? Isn’t our hatred for Auntie culture a kind of internalized misogyny? Why do capital-U-Uncles escape this vitriol? The Auntie is so involved as to be reviled, but capital-U-Uncles are so distant as to be negligent! And then when they do get involved, they do it with the same entitlement of the Auntie – it was just lying dormant within them! Behind many unhappy Aunties is an emotionally withholding Uncle – why don’t we discuss the toxicity of that?

Aunties – like so many traditionally maternal roles in society – are easy targets. Progressives and conservatives alike can find common ground in what they hate about Aunties. And when your common ground hinges on hate, well, that’s probably not a very good thing, especially in a culture and society as divided and divisive as South Asian culture(s) and societ(ies).

I’m exhausted. I want to see past memetic reduction and into the conditions that create Aunties to begin with. But if the antidote to despair is action, then dammit, I’m acting.

These past five years I have been growing into my own in so many ways, and one of the ways I have grown is into being an Auntie, and I am willing to embrace that. I won’t excuse the actions of the Aunties before me, who have hurt me just as they have hurt so many. Instead, I will be the Auntie I wish to see in the world: tea-drinking, biscuit-munching, book-reading, advice-giving, consensual match-making, straight-shooting, always-loving, bear-hugging, forward-thinking, gaali-galoching Auntie. And I will look at the Aunties I have encountered holistically, kindly, patiently. I will look inward into the misogyny I have grown accustomed to and dismantle it.

In 2019, I vow to hold Uncles accountable for once in their lives, and do in my part in ushering in a new generation of Aunties. I hope you’ll join me.

An invocation towards kindness

I don’t like keeping resolutions, because I know I’m going to break them. If you’re one of those people that thrives off resolutions, I envy you.

Ever since I watched Ze Frank’s Invocation for Beginnings, I’ve found myself ingratiated to the idea of a manifesto or invocation whenever I start something; whether it’s a notebook for school, a new semester, a new journal I’m hoping to actually fill up all the way. It forces me to think about what I’m going to write, and writing something down – for me – injects a certain permanence into the manifesto. It gets burnt into my memory, and especially the bit of my brain that’s behind my determination (and overambition of course). It becomes an ego thing.

I don’t like admitting I have an ego, but I totally do. And at least in this case the ego serves me well.

So here is my invocation: Towards Kindness.


 

I will charge forward into this blank slate with confidence in my steps and caution thrown to the wind. I will be ready with a smile and an open heart to welcome opportunity and friendship into my life; I will remember that I have trusted and been broken for that trust but that it has never stopped me from trusting before, so why should it have any effect now? I will remember that the best nights are those where I had no intention of staying up late and do anyway; I will remember that that is how I made my best friends and met those who I love. I will not be cranky if I only get 7 hours of sleep as opposed to 8, and I will (try to) not regret being bleary-eyed and exhausted the following day.

I will remember that life is about art and the written word and music. I will remember that I have learnt about the meaning of art from engineers, about the nuances of the written word from computer scientists, and about music from beauty gurus on Youtube. I will remember that life is all around me and that it is the grandest Work in Progress; and I will remember that the best art I have created is that whose final manifestation I had no inkling of when I started drawing.

I will not compare myself to other people. That’s not fair to anyone involved. And I will not tell myself I hate myself even when I do; I will not say those words again.

I will remember on my darkest days that I can create. I will remember when I am angry how it feels to love and be loved. I will remember when I fail that I have succeeded. I won’t remember my mediocre IGCSE grades because that is how irrelevant they have become to my present; and that is how it should remain and how it will be when I am an adult, whether cum laude or not, magna or summa notwithstanding.

I will remember that laughter is only a breath away. I will remember that my loved ones are only a phone call, text message, walk, or some number of train stops away. I will remember that love sneaks up on you in beautiful ways. I will learn that friendship is a matter of retrospect; so reflect. I will remember that people I used to dislike are now my close friends. I will remember that adulthood is a sharp learning curve, and that’s okay.

I will remember that some music hurts to listen to because it meant so much.

I will remember that there is no greater feeling than that of being held.

I will remember that I have as much to teach as I have to learn – and I love teaching.

I will remember that there is nothing like losing yourself in a book – so read as much as you did when you were younger.

I will remember that if I can’t sleep it’s probably because I have a poem I need to write – so write it.

I will remember that if I still can’t sleep properly, it’s because I’m fantasizing instead of drifting off – so, I don’t know, is it a really good fantasy? Because if it is that’s okay.

I will remember that I have been shown kindness in ways that have and will shape my life. I will remember that my life’s goal is to change the world; and if the world is made of 7 billion individual lives, and if change starts from your immediate circle, I cannot be unkind even if it is unintentional.

I must be the light in the darkness that I seek in my darkest moments. I must be the open arms I myself rush into when I hurt.

I will invoke kindness and beauty and grace in everything I do. I will feel rage but I will turn it into creativity and not destruction. I will ease my anger into sweetness. I will be honey and the honeybee.

And I will invoke all this unto myself.


1/1/16

 

Assorted thoughts over winter break

There’s been so much happening that it’s easier to make a big post filled with a lot of little things than one large disjointed post. I’ve been in Dubai for the past couple weeks and am slated to be back in Boston around 2:30pm EST on the 2nd of January. I legitimately cannot believe it’s almost 2014, but I say that every year. Anyway.

i. I feel a little guilty for being so excited to go back to Boston, for referring to it as “home” after three and a half months of being there; but my heart is an easy thing to capture, and I leave bits and pieces of it wherever I go, a trail of breadcrumbs to follow back if I am ever lost. Certainly, the trail back to Boston is littered with the lion’s share of breadcrumbs – in fact, it is beginning to rival Lahore for hosting the largest piece of my heart. It’s easy for me to make homes wherever I go. The geography matters some, sure (Boston has college, Lahore has roots, Dubai has family, all have friends) but what home is, is familiarity. Dubai, while I know the formal details of the city, never felt familiar. I was here for a while, and I othered it (certainly, I did not allow myself to feel at home here, and that is my fault) and othered myself within it. Boston, however, I let seep into my being like a lover and even if I didn’t know how to formally navigate it, it was steeped in a nostalgia that I still do not entirely understand. Sure, Dubai has my family, and I love my family deeply…but I have always been independent, fiercely independent, and I have been just the slightest bit restless ever since I realized how the world holds all those years ago. Boston puts that restlessness at ease. I am independent, but still comfortable. Boston took my heart, sort of like a down-payment for my future there. And while the niggling sensation of guilt holds true, it’s my home now.

ii. Resolution is a Bad Word. There’s far too much baggage that comes with That Particular Word, one that evokes memories of forgotten promises and failed goals. You make resolutions with the expectation that all you’ve resolved is going to go to shit by February. So I’ve decided to eschew the word – I will, instead, use a much kinder, softer word, an easy word, a word like “goals.” Resolutions is hard, like a drill sergeant screaming “MAGGOT” at you all the time, watching you with beady eyes that expect you to fail. I’m not about that life. Any goals I set for myself are going to be called just that: goals. Less commitment, more breathing room, and less of a feeling of impending failure. (That being said, I refuse to bore people with my goals for 2014. You’re welcome to comment with your goals for the new year, however! I’d love to hear them!)

iii. Empty notebooks are a testament to my tumultuous identity as a writer. I have bought countless notebooks in the hopes that I will fill them up with writing – poetry, prose, essays, grocery lists, plot ideas, character sketches, etc. And yet, eventually, they are forgotten, abandoned at some corner of my desk, in a closet, the drawer where Things Go To Die. Still, notebooks have a magnetic appeal for me. Leatherbound, recycled paper, maps and cartographic wonders, adorned in creamy lace, hand-embroidered, they beckon my aesthetic and writerly sensibilities alike thither. I cannot seem to stop letting notebooks down, though, and even though I have been carrying around my most recent notebook (black, hard cover, spiral bound; simple, compact, doomed) wherever I go, I’m afraid it will share the same fate as my previous ventures into organizing my thoughts. I’m envious of people who have actually been able to retain years and years of writing in complete journals – and if you’re one of those people, really, be proud of yourself. I wish I had your patience and dedication, but I am as flaky as my commitment to writing is (and also needlessly hard on myself) so allow me, stranger, to live vicariously through you.

iv. This blog has received a considerable influx of followers and I can’t help but feel a kind of performance anxiety every time I write a post; I feel like nothing can live up to the post that brought everyone here in the first place, but at the same time, I don’t want to sacrifice frequency. It’s a weird area to navigate, and I’m still trying to figure it out. More to the point, I’m a little scared this blog is becoming too introspection-heavy with not enough societal/political stuff. I’ll figure that out.

v. Sometimes I miss fashion and fashion illustration so much that it hurts, and I’m filled with this deep longing for brassy, sultry music, cold nights, fairy lights, red lipstick and long walks.

vi. I wish I could play an instrument.

vii. There is so much pain and hurt in the world. Bad news comes in threes. I wish I could kiss away the horror – instead, I want to make my existence one that honors those in constant hurt. As silly as it sounds, I want my existence to be as reassuring as a mother’s kiss, my words a poetry, a salve for broken hands. It may be an audacious ambition, but what do we have if not audacity and hope?

viii. I have learnt to not count down to dates, and live in the present instead. It is the greatest gift I could have given myself.

ix. Time to get used to writing 2014, I guess.